For college pre-orientation, I went to a three-day camping trip and a silent disco for the first time.  The experiences are more similar than you’d think.

I’ve attended two years of summer sleep-away “nerd” camp previously.  Though I never hiked during those trips, I’ve noticed that, basically, summer camp is a hot cooker for intensified emotions.  After an awkward start, platonic and even romantic feelings develop faster than one thinks possible.  I used to miss my three-week-long friends like I was ill; unattainable camp crushes yielded some of the strongest emotions of my young life.  Similarly, during my pre-orientation camping program — called PennQuest — before college, my hiking mates felt incredibly attached to each other.  Maybe it was the bonding over itchy bug bites and steep hills — or maybe it was the sight of everyone in their sweaty, makeup-less, and simplest forms.

So camps are microcosms of accelerated intimacy.  But are they special exceptions to emotionally-cautious life, or a mass-hallucination of young minds eager to feel less alone than they are?  

Tangentially-related, during one of the first days of new student orientation, my new hallmates and I traveled across campus to a silent disco event.  A pair of boys we met along the way tagged along.  Upon arriving to the site, they laughed at the people in headphones grooving out in apparent silence.

A group beside us actually looked like they were partying it up in a club, much to our amusement and delight.  I donned the hard plastic muffs and was soon easily swaying to Chance and Beyonce.  The boys at first seemed stiff, then started bobbing their heads and arms in approval.  After a few songs, though, the boys looked at each other and removed the headphones.

“We’re going to our dorm to play pool and listen to music from speakers,” one said.  “You can come with us.”

We declined the offer, but even after they departed, I stilled in embarrassment and self-consciousness.  But then I thought, whatever.  Silent disco is clubbing distilled to its most basic elements: music and space.  It removes some problematic byproducts, like deafening noise pollution.  It makes a public experience a shared personal experience. dscn0353

On our last night of PennQuest, our group leaders — who had led us through sweaty but fun miles of the Appalachian trail — gathered us in a circle and passed out small tealight candles.

“It’s hard for people outside PennQuest to understand what happens here,” group leader Chloe said.  “Some will be skeptical of your experience — like, ‘you guys couldn’t have gotten that close with so little.’  You may doubt how real this felt.  But PennQuest is what you make of it.  Its fun and benefits depend on how much you buy into it.  And it’s as real as you feel it is.”

As real as you feel it is.  

We worry too much about whether feelings are sensible.  From the outside, we laugh at the silent-disco dancers because they appear duped and over-excited.  But then you realize: music is music.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s through headphones or a boombox.  You dance because you feel it, and that’s all that matters.  Similarly, emotions — as long as they are felt — are real and valid and beautiful.

I don’t know if my camping friends will last all four years — if they’ll want to to stick around a quiet girl who can’t always deliver funny one-liners — but when we went around the circle and said nice observations about each other, I knew it was one of the happiest moments of my life.




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